October 26, 2007
By Susan Benson
Director of Education
Cable Natural History Museum
Although we’re now into November, we may still enjoy an occasional warm, dry day in the coming weeks. Of these sorts of days, the early American writer John Bradbury wrote: “The air is perfectly quiescent and all is stillness, as if Nature, after her exertions during the Summer, were now at rest.”
Such a warm spell is often called “Indian Summer,” a term that dates back to the 18th century in the United States. In general, it is defined as any spell of warm, quiet, hazy weather that may occur in October or November. Some people feel that a true Indian Summer can not occur until there has been a hard frost.
Where does the term “Indian Summer” come from? The earliest written usage was a passage in a letter written in 1778 by Frenchman named St. John de Crevecoeur. He wrote:
“Sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness. Up to this epoch the approaches of winter are doubtful; it arrives about the middle of November, although snows and brief freezes often occur long before that date.”
But what do Indians have to do with it? One theory holds that early native Indians chose that time of year as their hunting season. The mild and hazy weather encourages animals to come out, and the haziness of the air might better enable hunters to sneak up on prey.
Another thought is that Indians at that time were known to have set fires to prairie grass, underbrush and woods, which would have added to hazy, smoky conditions. Other possible explanations include: Indians made use of the dry, hazy weather to attack settlers before winter set in; this time was the season of the Indian harvest; or, that the predominant southwest winds that accompanied the Indian Summer period were regarded by the Indians as a favor or blessing.
Yet another hypothesis, but one having nothing to do with Native Americans, suggests that ships at that time crossing the Indian Ocean loaded up their cargo the most during the “Indian Summer,” or fair weather season. Several ships actually had an “I.S.” on their hull at the load level thought safe during the Indian Summer.
Whatever the explanation, these rare warm, still days are indeed a blessing from nature before the rigors of winter set in—so should we happen to have a stretch of Indian Summer, get out and enjoy it!
You might also mark your calendars to get up early and get outside November 17-18 for the peak of the Leonid Meteor Shower. Visible might be as many as 10 meteors per hour and viewing will be best in the pre-dawn hours. The meteors will seem to originate out of the constellation Leo.
It’s not hard to practice phenology; it’s simply the study of changes in plants and animals as they respond to weather, climate, and the seasons. If you’re a gardener, hunter, bird watcher, nature photographer, or a generally outdoorsy person, you can probably also add “phenologist” to your list of titles.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 43570 Kavanaugh Street or on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.